Madison Protests Targeted ‘Fake Liberalism’
City and state have some of the nation’s 'worst inequalities'.
It was a shocking, bruising, terrible week.
Worst of all was the horrifying attack on Althea Bernstein, a bright, loving young woman who was sitting in her car when four white men yelled the N-word at her, threw lighter fluid through her window, and then set her on fire.
Despite her physical and emotional scars, Bernstein appeared on Good Morning America just days after the attack. She hoped the men who attacked her know that they hurt her, “and that this is something that is going to affect me for a while,” she said, “and I really hope that they choose to improve themselves.”
Meanwhile, Madison is in turmoil over protests that turned destructive last week.
Protesters who said they represented a coalition of Black Lives Matter groups broke windows in the Capitol, threw a Molotov cocktail into the City County Building and tore down two iconic statues on the Capitol square.
The destruction of those two statues — symbols of Wisconsin’s progressive history — hit close to home for Madisonians.
The bronze likeness of abolitionist Col. Hans Christian Heg had stood in front of the Capitol since 1925. “Forward,” representing women’s progress, by sculptor Jean Pond Miner, was first erected at the Capitol (and later replaced by a replica) in 1895. Dragging them down and, in Heg’s case, breaking off his head and throwing him in the lake, felt like a personal attack on Madison’s identity as a liberal university town and on Wisconsin’s progressive tradition.
Why tear down Heg — an ardent opponent of slavery who died in the Civil War and who championed rehabilitation over punishment in Wisconsin prisons? And why tear down the very image of progressive idealism embodied by “Forward”?
In addition to their historical significance, these statues were rallying points for the massive protests against former Gov. Scott Walker when he launched his assault on unions. They were dressed up in clever costumes, held protest signs and were featured in selfies with countless Wisconsinites who saw themselves as part of a grand, historic progressive movement against injustice in all its forms.
But neither the dusty history of Wisconsin’s progressive movement nor those more recent moments of uprising were ever fully inclusive.
Racist violence and structural oppression are a repressed reality in our community.
And now that fact is right in our faces.
Protesters explained in interviews with my colleague Melanie Conklin that for Black people, Madison is not very progressive, and Wisconsin’s motto, “Forward,” rings hollow. The statues, one protester told her, “are the symbols of this sort of fake liberalism that we have. This idea of our city being so progressive, so positive, yet it has some of the worst inequalities in the country.”
Anderson-Carter called on the governor and the Legislature to come to the Capitol and meet with Black youth.
But right now, any movement forward feels like it’s slipping away. After weeks of multiracial protests against police brutality and the murder by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, Republicans at the state Capitol and the White House seized the opportunity afforded by the statue-vandalism in Madison to double down on law-and-order rhetoric.
As Conklin keenly observes, the Republicans and the protesters alike are focusing their criticism on Democrats in our divided state.
Still reeling from the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and just emerging from the last round of window-breaking downtown, local shop owners who had taken down the plywood started boarding up their windows again.
It’s a dark moment.
It’s easy enough to blame protesters for playing right into the Republicans’ hands. Even progressives who are inclined to be supportive are turned off by the destruction, and moderates, especially local business owners, may become suddenly more receptive to the law-and-order argument that we need more police protection, not less.
But that’s not really the point.
The deeper point is that we are feeling the impact, close to home, of deep, historical injustice that it is frankly pretty easy for white liberals to overlook.
We live in one of the worst places in America to grow up as a Black child. There are so many ways, large and small, in which the deep segregation of our community creates two different worlds of experience for white and Black residents. Despite our state’s worst-in-the-nation Black male incarceration rate, our schools where Black children are too often automatically treated as delinquents from the youngest ages, our terrible Black child poverty statistics and casual discrimination of every form, Madison feels, to white people, like a progressive utopia.
“What you see happening in Madison are people who are fed up — who are marginalized, experiencing unaddressed trauma, poverty, and experiencing a lack of economic opportunities in under-resourced communities,” writes Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane Co., in an open letter published in Madison 365.
Johnson has a list of suggestions for Madison to address racial inequality, including transferring money from the police department to community services, hiring peer support coaches to replace school police officers, a $30 million endowment to help Black Madisonians start businesses and purchase homes and bringing together youth organizers and philanthropists to work on a plan to end racial disparities.
“Our generation is witnessing the unraveling of the social fabric of our city right under our collective watch,” Johnson writes, “and we owe them a real response with a plan that funds these priorities.”
Bernstein’s grace and Johnson’s optimistic leadership offer hope that we can find the path forward.
Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.
- Op Ed: Chauvin Verdict Offers Glimmer of Hope - Angela Lang and Milwaukee BLOC Team - Apr 25th, 2021
- Protesters Rally After Chauvin Verdict - Graham Kilmer - Apr 21st, 2021
- Supervisor Taylor Statement on Derek Chauvin Guilty Verdict - Sup. Sequanna Taylor - Apr 21st, 2021
- Accountability should not be such a rare commodity - Ald. Milele Coggs - Apr 21st, 2021
- Statement on the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial - Ald. Chantia Lewis - Apr 20th, 2021
- Statement from Milwaukee Police Department on Derek Chauvin Verdict - Milwaukee Police Department - Apr 20th, 2021
- Live Stream From Justice 4 George Floyd Rally - Urban Milwaukee - Apr 20th, 2021
- Gov. Evers Releases Statement on Verdict in Chauvin Trial - Gov. Tony Evers - Apr 20th, 2021
- County Executive David Crowley Statement on Derek Chauvin Trial Verdict - County Executive David Crowley - Apr 20th, 2021
- Sheriff Earnell R. Lucas Statement on the Verdicts in the Chauvin Trial - Earnell Lucas - Apr 20th, 2021
Read more about 2020 Racial Justice Protests here
- Madison Protester Gets Probation on Extortion Charges - Shamane Mills - Jan 28th, 2021
- Aggressive Police Escalate Violence at Protests? - Clara Neupert - Dec 10th, 2020
- Two Charged with Arson During Civil Unrest in Madison, Wisconsin - U.S. Department of Justice - Sep 23rd, 2020
- Data Wonk: Who Benefits From the Madison Vandalism? - Bruce Thompson - Jul 1st, 2020
- I Sincerely Appreciate Your Kind Words of Support! - State Sen. Tim Carpenter - Jun 30th, 2020
- Op Ed: Madison Protests Targeted ‘Fake Liberalism’ - Ruth Conniff - Jun 29th, 2020
- Everybody Wants Action From Gov. Evers - Melanie Conklin - Jun 29th, 2020
- Madison Protester Faces Heavy Charges - Rachael Vasquez - Jun 29th, 2020
- What Happened at Madison’s Protests - Bruce Murphy - Jun 24th, 2020
Read more about Madison Unrest here